The Frontal Cortex

Grocery Shopping

In a recent NY Times Magazine, Mark Bittman (aka the Minimalist) waxes enthusiastic on the potential of online grocery shopping:

That’s why, to focus on things that could happen in our lifetimes, we should take a look at improving online grocery shopping. The one time I tried shopping online I was sent a free watermelon — how does that happen? — but that didn’t make up for the even-less-than-supermarket quality of the food. This is my fantasy about virtual grocery shopping: that you could ask and be told the provenance and ingredients of any product you look at in your Web browser. You could specify, for example, “wild, never-frozen seafood” or “organic, local broccoli.”

You could also immortalize your preferences (“Never show me anything whose carbon footprint is bigger than that of my car”; “Show me no animals raised in cages”; “Don’t show me vegetables grown more than a thousand miles from my home”), along with any and all of your cooking quirks (“When I buy chicken, ask me if I want rosemary”). You would receive, if you wanted, an e-mail message when shipments of your favorite foods arrived at the store or went on sale; you could get recipe ideas, serving suggestions, shopping lists, nutritional information and cooking videos. If poor-quality food arrived — yellowing broccoli, stinky fish, whatever — you would receive store credit without any hassle.

While those would all be nice benefits – don’t get me started on industrial meat production, because I turn into a self-righteous bore – I think the most important improvement triggered by online supermarket shopping would be a reduction in impulse purchases. By now, you are probably all tired of hearing about Walter Mischel and his marshmallow experiments. To summarize, Mischel tested the self-control of young children by asking them to not eat a marshmallow sitting right in front of them. Not surprisingly, most kids had a tough time waiting, with an average delay time under three minutes. They’d look at the yummy marshmallow, a pillowy sphere of sugar and corn starch, and their weak willpower muscles would wilt.

But there was one simple way to dramatically enhance the self-control of four-year olds: Instead of giving them an actual marshmallow, show them a picture of a marshmallow. Although the practical consequences were the same – if they picked up the picture, they could get a tasty treat right away – the presence of the photograph was much less alluring, a much “cooler” stimulus. The end result is that most kids didn’t have trouble resisting the reward. (You can also teach kids to draw an imaginary picture frame around a real marshmallow, a cognitive trick that also enhanced willpower.)

What does this have to do with online grocery shopping? When we shop in a supermarket in person, we are confronted with an endless supply of “hot” stimuli, the shelves full of temptations. Maybe it’s Haagan-Dazs ice cream, or all those different kinds of potato chips. Perhaps our weakness is dark chocolate or Snickers or sour gummy bears. The point is that everyone has a favorite food, and seeing that food right in front of us makes it much harder to delay gratification.

Like those four-year olds, however, we can ignore that pint of Haagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche when we’re only looking at a picture of it. The stimulus has been cooled off by the online shopping experience – it’s an abstraction, a mere image – which allows us to make more responsible shopping decisions. The same logic also applies to non-food impulse purchases, from cashmere sweaters to electronics. (This suggests that whenever we feel our self-control slipping away we should leave the store immediately and go shopping online. If we still want to buy the sweater on our computer, then maybe it really is a good deal.)

So here’s a research proposal: someone should do a carefully controlled study looking at how our online supermarket decisions differ from our in person supermarket decisions. I’d bet that we make healthier choices when those tasty snacks are just photographs, shrunken to fit our computer screen.

Comments

  1. #1 Mozglubov
    October 26, 2009

    Of course, the main problem with online purchasing is the extra layer of abstraction that prevents a person from getting to examine the tangible object. When I got my first place to myself after living in residence, I was working full time and did not own a vehicle, so I had to make a lot of my purchases online. By and large, from electronics to furniture, my happiness with my online purchases and the purchases I did manage to make in person was far less, simply because the quality of the objects was worse (the television was particularly terrible). Reading a specs list is a lot different from actually getting to fiddle with a controller, sit on a chair, tap on a shelf, or try on a sweater.

    When it comes to food, while it would likely help us to reduce unhealthy impulse buys, shopping online is also likely to reduce one’s variety (if you only ever order your favourite vegetables, you are less likely to spot a head of cabbage and think, “Hmm, haven’t had that for a while.”).

  2. #2 OftenWrongTed
    October 26, 2009

    What a wonderfully written and thought provoking post: You have peaked my curiosity about netgrocer.com. Perhaps other readers have experience with these type of services. The first item posted on netgrocer.com was an enticing box of glazed, chocolate donuts and I feel no restraint in viewing the item online. Please excuse me now, I can’t wait for the morning mail, I’m off to get a chocolate donut

  3. #3 kevin Bonham
    October 26, 2009

    Something must be seriously wrong with me, since just reading your words about Haagan-Dazs makes me want to stop studying for my PQE and get some ice-cream.

    JP-licks, here I come.

  4. #4 Staci Motherwell
    October 26, 2009

    Jonah, I have to say, you are dead on. I spent 5 years in a suburb of Minneapolis where the grocery service delivered daily and price matched the local grocery chains. I actually saved money and ate healthier. Alas, I’ve moved to a much smaller town with no grocery delivery. Rarely a shopping trip goes by without some sort of impulse buy.

  5. #5 Dr Becca
    October 26, 2009

    Isn’t it also true that grocery store layouts are often designed to encourage unhealthy impulse buys, like forcing you to walk by the cookies when going from produce to meats? I shop regularly from Fresh Direct (the NYC-area online grocery), and although every page contains product suggestions, the recommended items are almost never junk food. I think you may be on to something!!

  6. #6 miss zephyr haversack
    October 26, 2009

    It’s a great idea — IF you enjoy online shopping. But grocery shopping, when there is time and inclination, is a sensual and creative pastime. Looking at fresh fruits and veg can inspire ideas for meals, and the accompanying smelling and poking, etc., is a pleasure. The scent of fresh papaya! (So similar to fresia …) The good thumpy sound of a ripe watermelon, &c. We are too much in front of our screens and losing touch with the world that’s “away from the screen”, the one our brain grew up, nay, evolved in, the one our brain needs to experience regularly, for optimum health and a feeling of fulfillment.

    That said, online shopping certainly saved me when I was in a full leg cast. And the groceries were surprisingly excellent. But I’d rather thump the melon than click the mouse.

  7. #7 Cedar
    October 26, 2009

    Part of the reason for the impulse buys in grocery stores is that certain products are placed in high visibility places, whether because the manufacturer paid for eye-level placement, or because they are highly profitable for the grocery store. If this went to online, grocery stores would continue to guide our eyes for their profit rather than our health. Just think, you might want to go to buy some turkey sausage, and instead, be confronted with a page of “sponsored links” (hehehe). Ultimately, I would think it would be hard to get grocery stores to both add a service that they don’t currently provide on a large scale (delivery), and then, cut out revenue with the product placement.
    I might also recommend subscriptions to community supported agriculture (CSA’s). Some of these you simply give them a set fee every week, and they fill a box with whatever is in season. As Barry Schwartz, Dan Gilbert and company might say, this lack of choice actually makes you happier in the long run, especially since the fruit and veggies tend to be a lot fresher than whatever is in the grocery store.

  8. #8 William Carleton
    October 27, 2009

    Jonah, I totally love your work, and tell all my friends stories from “How We Decide” all the time. But shopping for food online is a very, very bad idea. Food is not a commodity, and we would do well to disabuse ourselves of that idea as soon as possible. It would also be good to totally throw out the idea of nutrition and “healthy choices” and all that nonsense that abstracts food, treats it as fuel. Food is a pleasure, one we should do more to connect with; food is something we should be more, not less, impulsive about. Rather than go online to shop for food, rather than go to the supermarket, go to a farmer’s market, taste the produce, avoid packages, treat your eyes and your tastes and indulge them. Connecting to food, viscerally handling, tasting it, acknowledging it, and enjoying it, is all one needs to do to eat well. It’s the industrialization of food that has disserved us.

  9. #9 Jake
    October 27, 2009

    I couldn’t disagree more, Bill. Cocaine is also a pleasure, but surely you wouldn’t advise that we impulsively binge on it? (Or “viscerally connect” with it, if you prefer…) Ignoring our better sense and simply doing what feels good is the root of many of our biggest problems in modern society. In the domain of food, this sort of attitude is why cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death *world-wide*.

    Abstract away from the doughnut! ;)

  10. #10 Andrew Farrand
    October 27, 2009

    No more impulse busy in the ice cream aisle or the checkout line? Right there is your explanation for why grocery store chains are only making tentative steps into the online sales market. But you would think a niche might exist for a company to enter the market and sell exclusively online, with no traditional storefront, using a network of regional warehouses and a website like the one Bittman describes to challenge the traditional grocers.

  11. #11 James Sweet
    October 27, 2009

    Not to dispute this conclusion in general, but before I got married I found that online shopping actually increased my impulse spending… but only because I hate being in retail stores. Dunno why, I just don’t like it. So if I was in a physical store to buy something, I would get my intended purchase and hurry out as rapidly as I could. Online, though, I might switch over to another window, then mosey on back and be like, “Hey, I should buy that accessory for this thing too!”

    But I’m sure I am an outlier :)

  12. #12 Virginia
    October 29, 2009

    I might be just another outlier here, but I actually find it harder to control my “shopping impulses” online than at the store itself. When you’re at the store, there’s a delay –from the time you pick the product from the aisle, to the moment you take your money out to pay for it– that can make you think twice about your decision to buy it. Shopping online, on the other hand, is super fast. Moreover, if you’re a regular customer, you probably have your account set so that all you need to make a purchase is a single click from your computer, something pretty difficult to resist when you’re in an impulsive mood…
    I’d love to see someone take you up on that research proposal, though :)

  13. #13 Rachel
    October 31, 2009

    As a lifelong overweight person – I used to do my grocery shopping online; I don’t remember right now whether I shopped better; at the time I wasn’t really trying to lose weight. But as I also work from home, and am shy and retiring, one unwelcome side-effect was that it removed the last reason to go outside. After I’d spent 2-3 weeks in my house something made me leave to get something. Can’t remember what; I just remember catching myself staring at people. I was so hungry for the sight of people’s faces.

    So I stopped online food-shopping, being a horrible stay-at-home, I really need the incentive to get out of the house once in a while.

    The other reason was frustration with the service itself: They never have everything you ordered. There are always substitutions, or missing items if you forbid substitutions. Considering the orders are placed a day or so in advance you’d think they could tie in some stock control to it rather than just be limited to what happens to be on the aisles at the time some poor sod is getting my shopping.

    But… this article makes me think I might try again; as I do have a few bad shopping habits…

  14. #14 marilove
    November 2, 2009

    I live in Phoenix, AZ, and have for the last 9 years. I didn’t get a car until last August. I never bugged people for rides and walked or used public transportation exclusively. However, those of you who have been here know that Phoenix isn’t exactly the most friendly to those of us who choose not to drive (and in fact, I got a car last year because my new job is a lot further away which made it nearly impossible to take public transportation efficiently – I was spending 2 hours *each* way just to get to work, and in the summer when the air conditioning breaks, that is not fun).

    So, when I needed a lot of heavy items, like cat littler and canned goods, I ordered from Safeway.com. It was fantastic! I didn’t do a whole lot of produce, but what produce I did buy was always fine. The delivery people were always friendly and efficient, almost always on time and they called when they were running behind. They don’t accept tips.

    I saved money because it was far easier for me to stick to my list, or find substitutes for things that I couldn’t find. And I was able to step away and come back to decide if I really wanted to spend $100 on one order. Instead of just tossing stuff into a basket and hoping I wasn’t going over my budget, I could see *exactly* what I was spending. That was nice. I was also able to ignore the more enticing stuff like cookies and sugary cereal and stick with healthier stuff.

    It was a plus for me. Now that I have a car, I can’t justify the extra delivery cost, but for someone without a car or the ability or time to shop in-store, I think it’s a fantastic alternative.

  15. #15 marilove
    November 2, 2009

    Also, to add, I still use my safeway.com shopping list, even though I no longer order my groceries online or shop at Safeway much. It helps give me an idea of how much I’m going to spend. And sometimes if I am going to shop at Safeway, I’ll print out the list.

    It helps me stay within my budget.

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